The new coronavirus pandemic is likely to be a long event that will disrupt the rest of the academic year.
As an anthropologist, epidemiologist, expert on Ebola, and member of my local school committee in Brookline, I find that the coronavirus is forcing me to look at how epidemic preparedness and response work in our public schools.
There is little guidance from above: by statute, Massachusetts public schools have significant autonomy and local control. Local officials have to make tough decisions about changing school routines and closing schools. Unlike other countries with centralized educational systems and social safety nets, towns and cities make decisions on their own, on a case-by-case basis.
That means parents, teachers, school board members and district administrators have to decide which steps to take, often with incomplete information. As the science progresses, we can hope that our choices become easier.
For now, I’d like to offer an imaginary tour of what a school would look like if it had prepared well for the coronavirus.
As you walk through the hallway, you see a classroom to your left where teachers are holding group discussions with students about the disease. They are explaining that the students don't need to be afraid, and they are telling them what they can do to be coronavirus fighters, such as covering sneezes and coughs with their elbows, and letting an adult know if they feel sick.
Nurses are popping in to lead hand-washing and basic hygiene lessons for students. The students are taking hand-washing breaks every few hours, and signs are posted about hand-washing and disease transmission prevention.
In a middle school class, as students prepare to leave the room, they clean their desks, classroom doorknobs, screens and other high-touch surfaces.
In the kindergarten classroom, teachers are using disposable gloves to help children with their bathroom routines before snack time, because the novel coronavirus may involve the gastrointestinal tract, too, but there isn’t enough information yet to be sure.
In the principal’s office, the principal is sending out a message to all school staff urging them not to come to school if they are sick. She’s already sent another letter home telling parents that the school is implementing a strict policy of sending home any children with a fever or any other symptoms of the flu.
Later in the day, the guidance counselor checks in with all teachers to make sure that there haven’t been any bullying incidents involving children due to coronavirus. The principal privately checks in with teachers to ask the same of them, and to see if they need extra precautions because they are medically vulnerable.
She already has a specific emergency response plan, and a plan to communicate with her parents, teachers and staff if there is a quarantined family or a confirmed coronavirus case in the community.
Teachers are well informed, because the superintendent has communicated plans to all teachers’ unions and has identified key areas for the protection of the school workforce.
Reworking Group Work
At the end of the day, as teachers look at their room and their lesson plans, they ask themselves how school and classroom routines contribute to the spread of infection.
Do “group work” configurations of desks contribute to droplet-based transmission? They do. The teachers reorganize seating in their classrooms to an old-fashioned “row” based seating system. Do “group work” or “partner-based” activities contribute to the spread of infection? The teachers rework their plans so that students can stand at a distance from each other and don’t have to share materials, or they switch to individual work assignments.
The teachers check their rosters, and ask if any of their kids are more at risk than others due to special needs, and if they are medically vulnerable or have weakened immune systems. The nurse provides guidance and information so that teachers can take extra measures to protect those students.
Now, imagine there’s news of a confirmed case in a neighboring town. The school has to move to increase social distancing quickly.
The auditorium lies empty because events involving groups of more than 25 people are cancelled. Students start eating lunch in their classrooms to avoid crowding in the cafeteria and the hallways. Lunch is delivered to students who buy or receive free and reduced lunch. Pickup and drop-off times are staggered to prevent crowding in hallways and entrances.
Finally, it’s clear: COVID-19 is on the verge of moving through the community. To protect everyone, the schools have to close. If the district waits for cases in the schools, it has waited too long. The district has a plan for closing the schools, and leaders understand the impacts of closures.
An emergency budget is in place to support online learning, homeschooling, WiFi access and meal delivery for students receiving free or reduced meals. Curriculum coordinators have planned homeschool guides for parents. The superintendent has communicated with families.
Policy makers have moved proactively to waive restrictions to allow districts to close, and teachers know what will happen when closures occur. Everyone goes home. They buy time.
These are hard steps to take. People make mistakes. But in this ideal scenario, strong relationships and continuous, open communication with the public carry the day. The epidemic is slowed, and the students learn a new lesson: as a society, we make sacrifices to take care of each other.
Sharon Abramowitz is an anthropologist, sociologist, and a current member of the Brookline, Mass. School Committee. She has three school-aged children.